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Friday 22 August, 2008  

Good morning

I wrote in last Friday's newsletter of an incredible 50% savings opportunity offered to Travel Insider readers by our good friends at Pro Travel Gear.  So many of you sensibly responded to this amazing deal that Pro Travel Gear's server crashed three times on Friday.  Even so, they reported sales for the day came in 4.5 times higher than projected.  Wow - Travel Insider readers sure know how to spot a bargain when one is offered to them!

A good example of the shopping sprees that some of you shared with me was offered by reader Linda :

....  but it made me wonder if there is a back up for my cell battery when the car battery is caput.  I found one on the Pro Travel Gear site and added that to your noise canceling earphone recommendation.  I also couldn’t resist the Baggallini Cell Phone Bag and Lipstick Holder, especially since it was available only in a snazzy orange!  Since I have imminent travel plans, I added a TSA approved lock in bright purple and the airplane headset adapter.  All in all, a successful shopping spree!

This special has now concluded (and they've just about sold every item in stock), but for people who had problems accessing their site last week they have agreed to hold open the 50% discount, but only on their own three products - the Plane Quiet NC7 noise cancelling headphones, the Solitude In-the-Ear noise blocking headphones, and the new Plane Quiet Platinum noise cancelling headphones.  At half price, these cost you respectively $29.98, $9.98 and $49.98.

If you don't mind earplug type headphones, then the Solitude In-the-Ear headphones are a brilliant bargain.  You can use them instead of regular airline headsets, as an improvement over the silly earplug headphones includes with iPods, and in just about any other audio/music playing application.  They're tiny and light, can fit in your pocket, give great sound quality, and at a giveaway price of $9.98, who cares if you lose a set or two.  Buy half a dozen or more - enough for everyone in your family, and some spares for Christmas gifts.

As between the two other headphone sets, the smaller 'on the ear' NC7 headphones are reportedly a bit more fragile than the new 'around the ear' Platinum headphones.  Neither are as good as the $300+ Bose headsets of course, and you get what you pay for, but at $29.90 or $59.98, these are priced at the bottom end of the noise cancelling headphone product range while offering mid-range performance and quality, making them great value.

If you'd like to take advantage of this remaining special, you only have until the end of Sunday to do so.  That's right - just today, tomorrow and the next day.  So, go to their website, order as many of these three items as you wish, and use the new special discount code "TI50" (but without the quotes of course) to get your 50% discount.

There are some seasonal aspects to the website, and this is the time of year when I invariably notice an upswing in people visiting the pages about traveling to New Zealand - they come top of several Google searches for NZ information which brings in a steady stream of people considering a trip to my home country.  And so I was guilted into adding a few more pages to reward people visiting my site (and to encourage them downunder as well), with the result that there is now :

This Week's Feature Column :  Self Drive Touring around New Zealand :  Here are nine different sample driving itineraries to get you started on planning your own driving tour around New Zealand.

Dinosaur Watching :  Whenever I'm talking of New Zealand, my thoughts inevitably turn to my airline of choice whenever I travel down there, Qantas.  For sure Qantas has had a terrible run of bad luck recently, with all sorts of bothersome things happening to its planes (but no serious accidents), however, on the positive side they just yesterday announced their last fiscal year's results.

Proving them to be not just one of the world's very finest airlines, but also one of the world's very best managed airlines, they announced a whopping great A$1.41 billion (US$1.24 billion) before tax profit for the year ended 30 June 2008.  Perhaps even more astonishing was that this profit is 46% up on last year, tough economic times and high fuel prices notwithstanding.  This is an 8.7% net profit (ie gross income was A$16.2 billion), and is an extraordinary result that deserves the heartiest of congratulations.

Of course, even this outstanding result and profit margin by Qantas is eclipsed by the over-achievers at Qantas' arch-rival Emirates (US$11.2 billion in revenue and US$1.45 billion net profit, a 12.9% margin), but to say that in no way takes away from the massive profitability shown by Qantas.

Do you think this means Qantas can afford to reduce their high fares between the US and Australia?  Well, that is possibly going to happen, and not so much because of their profit, and neither because of the A380 that they'll start flying the route in mid October, but rather because of a new Australian airline competitor that will start services to the US in mid December - V Australia.  V Australia is a subsidiary of Australian airline Virgin Blue, and with some remaining ownership by Sir Richard Branson, but can't use the Virgin name on its international subsidiary due to Singapore Airlines being able to veto the use of the word Virgin on international airlines.

Singapore Airlines can do this as part of an agreement when it purchased a 49% shareholding in Virgin Atlantic Airlines.

The new airline will start daily service between Los Angeles and Sydney on 15 December, and will add three extra flights a week between Los Angeles and Brisbane in March 2009.  It will be flying 777-300ER planes in a three cabin configuration - Economy, Premium Economy and Business Class, and has stated that it will set its base economy fares 16% below the base Qantas fares.

It will be interesting to see what happens.  It is hard to exactly calculate the number of seats Qantas and other airlines fly between the US and Australia (how do you allow for flights that go via New Zealand, or Hawaii, or Fiji, for example) but it is accurate enough to say that Qantas controls more than half of the available capacity with its six daily 747-400 flights, and while I've never known them to compete unfairly, I've yet to see any airline dislodge Qantas from its market primacy across the Pacific, even though many have tried.

V Australia's website is online and they'll accept bookings already, but there are no exciting deep discounts on offer, and you'll have to wait until after the peak Christmas/summer season (downunder) - 16 Feb and beyond - for fares to drop at all.  My guess would be we'll start to see some good discounting when we move to low season (our summer/their winter) and V Australia have more flights to fill.  So sometime around March/April, look for low season deals from V Australia and perhaps some reluctant matching from Qantas, United and Air New Zealand.

I wrote about the pilot who suffered what is known as an 'Accidental Discharge' of his pistol shortly before landing his plane back in March.  The gun went off, and the bullet went down through the side of the plane, but nothing (and no-one) was damaged.

After some speculation as to what on earth could have caused his pistol to discharge (other than him inappropriately playing with it) a very convincing explanation came out, showing how the poor design of the pistol's holster could cause this to happen.  You can see an explanatory video here, with the simple explanation being that when placing a TSA mandated padlock through the holster and the pistol's trigger guard, the design of the holster can allow for a pilot to inadvertently put the padlock hasp in front of rather than behind the trigger without realizing his mistake.  If the pistol then moves forward in its holster, the hasp 'pulls' the trigger, causing the pistol to fire.

This is a terrible design weakness (the holster/pistol/padlock combination was developed and is mandated by the TSA) and needs urgent correction.  As far as I am aware, five months later and there's been no change to the holster design.

What has happened to the pilot, a man who has flown with US Airways for 24 years?  Now, remember that pilots who crash planes or have other accidental mistakes generally don't get fired.  Instead, they are encouraged to share the issues surrounding the problem in a 'no fault' environment that encourages open discussion which hopefully leads to understanding what weakness in the management and monitoring systems allowed the accident to occur and how to solve it.

But not, apparently, in this case.  US Airways fired the pilot.  He's now unemployed, and waiting probably another three months before an independent arbitrator can decide if he should have been fired or not.  How's that for justice :  Fire the pilot first, then hold an arbitration second, three plus months later, to decide if that is right or not.  Meanwhile the pilot can't really seek alternate employment, because he might get his old job and seniority restored.  He is in limbo, and not earning a penny while in this awful situation.

Discussing this with industry members predictably caused the somewhat controversial issue of 'should pilots be armed or not' to arise.  For quick background, after 9/11 the airline pilots union lobbied successfully for the creation of what is now termed the 'Federal Flight Deck Officer' program that allows pilots, but only after an extensive amount of training and testing (in their own time and on their own dollar) and psychological evaluation, to be permitted to take a pistol into the cockpit with them.

As an interesting contrast, the Air Marshals who may or may not be sitting in the cabin with you have arguably had less training and testing than the pilots in the cockpit, and the only time a firearm has been fired 'in anger' on a plane was when an Air Marshal shot and killed a man with some mental problems who was running away from the Air Marshal and trying to get off the plane.

Anyway, back to the pilots.  The concept is that an armed pilot is the last ditch defense - if the unthinkable should occur and hijackers/terrorists seek to take control of the plane, there'll be an armed pilot in the cockpit to resist their attempts to break in and take over the cockpit.  The pilots aren't allowed to go armed into the rest of the plane, and if there is any sort of terrorist event on board, they aren't allowed to go out and start shooting it out in the passenger compartment; all they can do is hunker down in the cockpit and prevent the terrorists from taking over the flight deck.

Pilots I know who have joined the program, which seems to have been designed to make it as inconvenient and difficult as possible to participate in, are not gun crazed Rambo wannabe's keen to pack a pistol on their hip.  They tend to be serious responsible and concerned people who are keen to add one last layer of safety to protect their planes, their passengers, and themselves.

Allowing pilots to have personal sidearms has been a controversial move, with some people arguing that there's too much added danger or risk by arming pilots, and/or there's no need for the pilot to be armed these days because of strengthened cockpit doors.

What do you think?  You're a group of sensible and experienced frequent travelers.  I've offered to share your views on a closed forum that some of the elite of the airline and aviation industry participate in; here's your chance to provide a valuable impact on an ongoing debate within the industry.

And due to the importance of the issue, rather than use an instant single answer type email response poll, I've blown the dust off my more sophisticated online survey software.  Please go to this page and answer the several short and simple questions about the topic; all answers are optional and all information is confidential and in no way can be traced back to you.

I'll present an analysis of the results next week.

And talking about analyzing results, your answers to our survey on should airlines charge passengers by weight got sidetracked by my trip to China, so allow me to now share those results with you.

You'll recall the question you were answering was whether you support or oppose the concept of weight based fares, and to make the answers more interesting, we asked you to rate yourself as to if you are of less than average weight (and therefore presumably a winner in any shift to weight based fares), average weight (with presumably neutral impact) or of, ahem, greater than average weight and therefore perhaps likely to be penalized on a weight based fare system.

This added analysis aroused the ire of one reader, who wrote

Not only am I am strongly opposed to the idea of weight based fares, I am also strongly opposed to your attempt to determine weight demographics for your newsletter subscriber base.  My weight plays no role whatsoever in forming my opinion regarding weight based fares.

Does one's own weight influence one's opinion on this subject?  Is the reader right or wrong?  As it happens, he is totally wrong.  53% of less than average weight readers support the concept of weight based fares, whereas only 11% of greater than average weight readers support the concept.

One other piece of survey trivia (at the risk of evoking the previous writer's ire).  13% of readers consider themselves less than average in weight, 58% think themselves to be average, and 30% admit to being more than average in weight.  An unsurprising outcome.

Here are the results in table form.  I'm showing the responses in percentages to adjust for the different number of responses for each respondent category.


Less than Average

Average Weight

More than Average

Strongly Support




Moderately Support








Moderately Oppose




Strongly Oppose





And, to give a total picture, adding up all responses without regard to weight, more than twice as many readers oppose weight based fares as support them :

With something as clearly unpopular as the concept of weight based fares, it would seem to be only a matter of time before the airlines introduce it, while telling us variously that it is forced on them by high fuel prices and is a response to what the marketplace seeks!

As always, thanks to all who participated and helped make this another interesting insight into what we all think about a current topic.

And talking about new and unpopular fees, United announced changes to its food policies.  You'll no longer get free meals in coach class on United's international flights, and business class flights in the US also will stop offering free food.  'Buy on board' food will continue to be offered.  United also says it is cutting back on flight attendants to the bare minimum required by the FAA.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.  There seems little political objection to the developing NW/DL merger.  Anti-trust and anti-competitive?  Harmful to travelers and communities?  Apparently not, according to this article from Delta's home town paper.

Good news and bad news for those of us who live on the internet.

The good news - AA has now started offering internet access on some of its planes.  Delta will follow shortly.  At $12.95 for flights over three hours, if the bandwidth is fair and the connection reliable, it sounds like a great way to convert dead time into productive time, and a reasonable price.  Details here.

Oh, wait.  Did someone say bandwidth?  Time for the bad news.  The US is increasingly lagging the rest of the world in terms of internet access speeds.  We now are the 15th in the world, with an average download speed for internet users connected via some form of broadband (primarily cable, fibre or DSL) being 2.3 Mbps (Megabits per second) in the US.

The country with the highest average speed is Japan, where the average speed is a scorching 63 Mbps - 28 times faster.  Average US speeds increased from last year when they were only 1.9 Mbps, but other countries are outpacing us even faster.

Great news for all people who fly through, to or from Britain.  It seems the company that owns Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports and two smaller airports (BAA - not to be confused with BA) is to be broken up and required to sell off two of its London airports, and perhaps either Edinburgh or Glasgow as well.

Currently, BAA controls 90% of the airport capacity in the London area, and what some consider to be its lackadaisical approach to effectively and efficiently managing its airports has not only been evidenced in massive increases in fees charged to airlines but also in service breakdowns such as with BA's new Terminal 5 launch earlier this year.

Details here.

Here's an interesting story.  I've been impressed at the marketing success of the 'Airborne' vitamin product - massively overpriced mega-doses primarily of Vitamin C in nicely illustrated packages and with convincing materials explaining how these tablets variously prevent you catching colds or help you get over a cold if you have one.  They have even been copied by look-alike similar products.

As one who invariably seems to catch some sort of minor ailment after a long flight, I've wondered if they might actually work as promised.  But now they've won a different type of distinction, and my question has been answered - they've been fined $30 million by the FTC for false claims.  Ooops.  Details here.

Lots happening on the cell phone front.  As I said in my article on competitors to the Apple iPhone 3G a month ago, the iPhone is far from the only exciting new phone coming onto the market.  RIM has now released a new Blackberry, and has an even better one (with an iPhone like touch screen) still in the works, and the new Google operating system based phone has now taken concrete shape, with it going on sale sometime prior to Christmas in the form of an HTC made phone sold by T-Mobile.  HTC make some of the best full-featured phones out there, so this is definitely an interesting thing to watch for.

Oh - there's also a new Palm Treo type phone, but, alas, who cares about Palm any more.  The marketplace has moved on from their - at the time very good - Treo phones of several years ago.

And as for the iPhone 3G itself, Apple has now admitted that rumors of problems with the phone working with the high speed 3G data networks are indeed true.  It released a software patch earlier this week that Apple claims will solve the problem, but others aren't so sure, fearing it to be based on the chipset hardware rather than the software that runs on the chipset.

A possible massive product recall/exchange by Apple?  We'll have to wait and see on that.

I got 2071 words into an essay on the price of oil (22 word summary - it won't stay low, it will shoot right back up to $140 a barrel and keep on going before we know it) that I was going to include in the newsletter and realized that it was making for a ridiculously long newsletter, and a woefully over-simplified discussion on oil pricing, so I've taken it out but will offer it as a future article instead.

On the context of word counts, a little bit of trivia for you.  This week sees the number of words written so far this year in new articles or newsletters (ie ignoring updates and rewrites of existing material) break through the quarter million point, about the same as three full sized books.

By comparison, this time last year saw 'only' 185,000 words written.  Yes, it has been a very busy year indeed!

This Week's Security Horror Story :  I wrote last week about flight attendants bullying passengers and telling lies, and the willingness of law enforcement authorities to believe the flimsiest of stories from flight attendants while ignoring ordinary decent victimized passengers who did nothing wrong.

Little did I suspect, when writing that section of last week's newsletter, that there'd be such a terrible example of this behavior to share with you this week.  This story is one that appalls me and almost makes me physically ill - a plucky 56 year old grandmother who has never so much as even had a speeding ticket in her life tostands up to the bad treatment and lies of flight attendants on a JetBlue flight, gets taken off the flight in handcuffs, is told she'll be banned for life from JetBlue and probably all other airlines, and gets savaged by the Las Vegas Police for daring to ask their names.  Details here.

Think about this carefully, folks.  Which bit of this scenario belongs in America?  Being bullied by lying flight attendants?  Being taken off the plane by armed police in handcuffs?  Or being savaged by the LV Police when she asks for their names (see the picture of her showing where the handcuffs, long since removed, had bitten into her wrists)?  Answer :  None of this is anywhere near acceptable.  And how about the official coverup - 'because no arrest was made, no record of the event or the participating officers exists'?  And the TSA, who apparently participated, now saying it is nothing to do with them?  And JetBlue, also refusing to comment.

If anyone is to be banned for life from JetBlue - and all other airlines - it should be the flight attendants and their willing empowerers, the various airport officials in Las Vegas.

We need some accountability here.  Our police and other security forces seem to have less accountability - and less sense and fairness - than the police in two bit banana republics.  What is happening to our country, once truly and proudly an honest and honorable upright country and citizenry, but now a place where anyone with a fabric badge (a la TSA) and gun can get away with whatever they choose?

And how upside down is the situation where paying passengers who behave themselves in a quiet orderly manner can unexpectedly find themselves being viciously slandered by flight attendants who seem able to do so with no fear of any accountability for their outrageous lies and misbehavior.

Here's a slightly overwrought story, but still worth reading, of an American who got caught up in our own Immigration Service's treatment of suspect arrivees into the US.

And here's an incredible story of a pilot who is also a retired Brigadier General and an FFDO (see above - a pilot who has been approved to carry a firearm into the cockpit with him) but who can't get to his plane because his name appears on a TSA terrorist watch list.

The pilot's name is also very generic - I wonder how many other James Robinsons are also suffering the same problem he does every time they try and fly too?

Here's a question that apparently TSA staffers aren't quizzed on :  'When inspecting an aircraft, what do you do if you see a sticky out bit coming out of the fuselage with the words 'Don't Step' written on it?'  You and I might be able to guess the correct answer, but at least one TSA staffer believes that the letters n't should be disregarded.  Details here.

But wait - there's more.  This article suggests the TSA staffer has done this before!

Phew.  I think we need to end the week with some lighter material, don't you?

When I went down to San Francisco for the Emirates A380 launch ceremony, I had a chance to meet and speak with several travel agency owners, from small 'mom and pop' agencies to the head of one of the largest mega-agency groups in the English speaking world.  When talking about Emirates, based in Dubai, and operating flights from the US only to Dubai,  common question we shared with each other, and which none of us could really answer, was 'why would anyone want to visit Dubai for fun?'.

This is a key question that Emirates needs to answer, especially for the US; whereas in some parts of the world their business comes from people who find flying from their origin to their destination via Dubai to be convenient, that is seldom the case for American travelers, and with the new huge coach class on their A380s (399 coach class seats in addition to their 76 business and 14 first class seats) plus their new services from San Francisco and Los Angeles, they've an increasing amount of capacity to fill.

But - why would anyone want to visit Dubai?  None of us could come up with a convincing answer, or a unique attribute that one can only experience or enjoy in Dubai.  On the other hand, here's an amusing, but - I suspect - painfully accurate recounting of twenty reasons not to move to (and live in) Dubai.

Three closing thoughts for you.  First, here's a range of furniture that might appeal to the aviation buff.

Second, here's a slightly foul mouthed take on airplane safety by George Carlin.

And, last for this week, it's time for a change from impersonal, unfriendly, uncaring airlines.  Why not fly Yorkshire Airlines next time you're traveling somewhere from LBA (Leeds Bradford Airport) in England?  In particular, the part 47 seconds in to the video clip is sure to appeal to that other theme of continuing interest to Travel Insider readers.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider


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